Having taken over as the new coach of Real Madrid, Rafael Benitez takes on a team that missed out on trophies last season, but has plenty of potential. We examine what the 1995 Champions League winner should do if he wants to win again.
Win More than Just Cups
Benitez is known as a cup specialist, and that's partly true. The Spaniard has won two league titles, both from his days at Valencia in La Liga, but by-and-large, his career has been full of examples of teams being motivated for that short-term push needed to win a knockout competition, but not for the long haul of a league campaign.
Why is this? It might be partly due to the playing style he demands from his players. Defense is prioritized, as is the counter-attack. This style works well for short bursts of time, but tires players out eventually, as Jürgen Klopp has found at Borussia Dortmund.
Benitez was not considered for the Madrid job during his Liverpool years, in spite of having been on the staff at the Bernabeu as a younger man, for the reason that the powers-that-be at the time felt his preferred playing style was not in keeping with the club's tradition of free-flowing attacking football.
It might be that the club has become attuned to a more defensive style after the Jose Mourinho years, but it is doubtful. Benitez may have to tweak his tactics, both to please the club's board, and to keep his players in top condition, at a club that is expected to challenge for every trophy, every season.
Win Around the Players
Benitez inherits a strong squad from Carlo Ancelotti, whose sacking surprised many, and struck even more as being too soon. The new coach has a three-year contract, but if Florentino Perez is anything to go by, Benitez will be lucky to get two seasons in the job. That isn't a reflection on his tactical prowess, which is well-known, but on the hair-trigger Perez so often has when beaten by Barcelona to the Liga title.
Barca have Messi, Neymar and Suarez, of course, but Real have a pretty fearsome attacking combination too. It is crucial that Benitez wins the trust of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, while keeping Ronaldo on-side.
It would be normal for a new coach to try and lay down the law with his players, but after a season where he hit 45 goals in the league alone, Ronaldo has become indispensable to the club. not only does he score more goals than anyone else in world football, he also has the kind of status at Real usually reserved for the likes of the Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas: it would be an embarrassment if Ronaldo tried to leave the club, and Benitez knows he runs the risk of forever being known as "the manager who unsettled Ronaldo" if the Portuguese moves on.
Benzema seems settled in his role, but Bale presents a different series of challenges for Benitez. The Welshman joined to a fanfare as the world's most expensive footballer, ran the show in the Copa del Rey final victory over Barcelona in May 2014, but then was the victim of a fan campaign, being booed loudly whenever he got the ball, after it was perceived he had not passed to Ronaldo enough.
Bale, sources say, has no intention of leaving this summer, but Benitez has to create a tactical system that will allow him to express himself freely, while not hurting Ronaldo's ego. We can see in Bale's rampant performances for his national team how well well he can play when given freedom to roam, and that might be what he needs at Madrid.
Further back, Benitez must decide if Iker Casillas has finally had his day. The veteran goalkeeper has been at Madrid his whole career, but does not look the clear-minded shot-stopper of his early years. As with most Real sides of recent vintage, all the major signings have been in midfield and attack, leaving a defense with too much to do, and perhaps lacking the right staff in some positions.
It will be a difficult sell, if Benitez goes to the board and asks for more money to sign a central defender. The problem is, it's difficult to hold a public signing ceremony for a no-nonsense stopper. But this might have to be what happens.
The challenges for Rafa Benitez at Real Madrid are numerous. If he is to rekindle the Liga glory of his time at Valencia, or win the Champions League as he did at Liverpool, he will need to be clear about his goals, in front of some very powerful people.
Real Madrid are currently a very useful 13/8 with Bet365 to win La Liga next season.